TCM Spotlight: Funny Ladies - Thursdays in October
"People either have comedy or they don't; you can't teach it to them," Lucille Ball famously said. Lucy, of course, had it in spades - just like the other Funny Ladies in our roundup of great comic female actresses. Each Thursday in October, TCM presents a lineup of rib-tickling films featuring many of the cinema's most gifted comediennes.
This Spotlight is hosted by actress/filmmaker Illeana Douglas, a TCM regular who has presented other programming related to accomplishments by women in film; and comedy legend Carol Burnett, a special favorite of television, stage and film audiences for decades.
Our salute is broken down by eras:
Silents to the 1930s, features a number of leading comic actresses from this era, including Mabel Normand, teamed with Fatty Arbuckle in the silent short Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916); Marion Davies in Show People (1928); Marie Dressler in Dinner at Eight (1933); Mae West in I'm No Angel (1933); and Margaret Dumont, a recurring partner and classic foil to the Marx Brothers, in A Day at the Races (1937).
This night also includes two TCM premieres. Babes in the Goods (1934) is a short starring Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly, a popular comedy team who were sometimes called "the female Abbott and Costello" and appeared together in more than 20 short films at MGM during the mid-1930s. The other premiere in the lighthearted musical comedy College Swing (1938), starring the adorably ditzy Gracie Allen as a coed who ends up owning her college and turning it into a haven for swing bands and jitterbuggers. The boisterous Martha Raye, another leading comedienne of the day, costars as a "professor of romance." The cast also includes George Burns (Allen's husband and performing partner) and another married couple (at the time), Betty Grable and Jackie Coogan.
The 1930s-1940s marked the heyday of screwball comedies, with numerous delightful performances by sophisticated actresses who were kicking over the traces to have some free-wheeling fun. Three of our memorable star turns in this genre won Best Actress Oscar nominations: Carole Lombard as the daffy socialite of My Man Godfrey (1936), Irene Dunne as the scandalous authoress of Theodora Goes Wild (1936) and Jean Arthur as the reluctant roommate of The More the Merrier (1943).
Rosalind Russell deserved a nomination for her fast-talking reporter in His Girl Friday (1940). Shockingly, Myrna Loy was never nominated for any of her screen performances, including a delightful turn as the skittish wife of frequent acting partner William Powell in I Love You Again (1940).
The 1950s saw sparkling work from some of our brightest female talents, with Judy Holliday proving that a sterling performance in comedy can beat out more dramatic competition in the Oscar race. By repeating her stage performance as Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday (1950), Holliday was named Best Actress in competition with such heavyweights as Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson. Jean Hagen won a nomination in the Supporting category for her hilarious bit as a screechy-voiced silent film star in Singin' in the Rain (1952), while Doris Day was nominated as Best Actress for displaying a sleek, sexy (and funny) new persona in the romantic comedy Pillow Talk (1959). The imposing movie careers of television comedy favorites Lucille Ball and Eve Arden are represented, respectively, by Forever, Darling and Our Miss Brooks (both 1956).
The 1960s, '70s and '80s include two more TCM premieres, Eight on the Lam (1967), with the hilarious Phyllis Diller as the wild-haired babysitter of widower Bob Hope; and Gilda Live (1980), which showcases lovable Gilda Radner in a filmed version of the Broadway show in which she recreated many of her (very) original TV characters.
Two other creative comic actresses who progressed to movies after finding stardom on television are Lily Tomlin, represented here by her performance in The Late Show (1977), as an aging hippie involved with private eye Art Carney; and Goldie Hawn, who plays a daffy cocktail waitress who stumbles into a job with the State Department in Protocol (1984). Also spotlighted are Elaine May in Enter Laughing (1967) and Madeline Kahn and Cloris Leachman both appearing in the Mel Brooks spoof High Anxiety (1977).
by Roger Fristoe